Marshall "Major" Taylor was much more than just a bicyclist
By Albert B. Southwick
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
September 16, 2001
"There are positively no mental, physical or moral attainments too lofty for the Negro to accomplish if granted a fair and equal opportunity." From the foreword to Marshall Taylor's autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World"
Marshall "Major" Taylor's exploits on the bicycle tracks of three continents are legend. From 1898 to 1904 he was indeed the fastest bicycle rider in the world. In 1899 he set seven world records -- in the quarter-mile, the one-third-mile, the half-mile, the two-thirds-mile, the three-quarter-mile, the mile and the two-mile. He did the mile (from a standing start) in 1.41, a record that stood for 28 years. He did the "paced" mile (behind a five-man windbreaker bike) in 1.31 and in 1.22 behind a motorcycle pacer. He also raced and won in the longer meets -- two-mile, five-mile, etc. He even once competed in a grueling six-day race at Madison Square Garden and came in eighth, having logged 1,732 miles over the 142 hours of competition.
But with his dazzling last-minute sprints, he was better adapted for the shorter races. During his professional career, he won hundreds of meets in the United States, Canada, France, Belgium, Switzerland, England, Italy, Denmark and Australia.
He would have won many more had he been treated fairly.
His record would be impressive for any cyclist. It was phenomenal for someone who, every time he rolled out onto the track, faced what he called "that dreadful monster prejudice." It was his hard-fought victory over the racist mind-set of America 100 years ago that gives him national significance.
The United States in 1900 was far more segregationist than it is today. "Lynch law" violence still occurred in parts of the Deep South. Jim Crow laws, authorized by a Supreme Court decision, prevailed in many states. Most whites assumed that they were superior to blacks.
Major Taylor challenged that assumption in a dramatic way.
Between about 1890 and 1910, the most popular sport in the land was bicycle racing -- far ahead of football, baseball and basketball. Crowds numbering 20,000 or 30,000 would show up at meets. In aspiring to be a winning racer, Major Taylor was challenging Middle America in a sensitive spot. Bad enough that he was allowed to compete against white riders. Far worse that he could beat them all in a fair contest. By 1898, it was obvious to everyone that he was peerless. It was too much for some of the white riders on the circuit. They decided to gang up on him, and they did.
Major Taylor's autobiography, "The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World" is a compendium of many of his victories. It is also a dismal chronicle of races lost because of dirty tricks white riders used against Taylor. They would crowd him off the track, hem him in "pockets," rough him up off the field, curse and threaten him. There is no telling how often he heard the "N" word, and other vicious epithets. After one close race (in Boston, no less!) a burly cyclist got him in a choke hold that made him black out before the police dragged the assailant off. In Atlanta, where he had planned to race, he was warned to get out of town in 48 hours or else. He finally gave up riding on the Southern circuit. He was refused hotel lodgings in St. Louis, San Francisco and other places. When the two big cycling organizations, the League of American Wheelmen and the American Cycle Racing Association, got into a jurisdictional dispute, the ACRA tried to get him banished for life.
But Major Taylor prevailed. He had become so big an attraction that race promoters often had to swallow their own personal prejudices and invite him to compete. His name on a racing card guaranteed a sizable gate. The contortions some of the promoters went through are revealing, almost funny.
More important were the reactions of the fans. Although they undoubtedly included plenty of rednecks and "good old boys," many of them were critical of the foul tactics and abuse that Taylor had to put up with. Newspapers all over the Northeast and Midwest were up in arms over the blatant unfairness of it all. Taylor became a symbol. He also became the first great black celebrity athlete. In his peak years, he made more than $35,000, a huge amount in those days.
Always polite, always a gentleman, he paved the way for Jackie Robinson and the rest of the black athletes that the country now takes for granted. The Williams sisters, of tennis fame, are the latest examples. And right here, I think, Major Taylor becomes something more than a sports legend. He should be recognized as one of the pioneers in punching a hole through the walls of segregation that had stood ever since the Civil War. And he did it in the field of sports, a crucial venue for Middle America.
Thanks to a group of dedicated volunteers, an impressive plaque commemorating Major Taylor is to be installed at the south entrance of the newly expanded Worcester Public Library. When that finally happens, this community will at long last properly recognize one of its most distinguished athletes and national trailblazers.
Albert B. Southwick of Leicester, Mass., is the retired chief editorial writer for the Telegram & Gazette.